29 January 2016

Music Day - Invisible Man

After many years of waiting and hoping and wishing and waiting some more, the day has finally arrived in which I can feature the utterly fantastic band Prodigal on Music Day. As longtime readers know, I don't feature songs that aren't available from either iTunes or the band's website because we all know how frustrating it is to hear about this GREAT song or album... and then it's not available anywhere, ever. Back when I started the Music Day posts, I pledged to myself that I would not torment my dear readers in this fashion. However, it has made Music Day maddening, because almost none of the music I like enough to bother featuring is on iTunes. This is the primary reason that Music Day goes on hiatus so often... I simply run out of songs.

But today -- oh happy day! -- my options have widened, however slightly (unfortunately, despite their brilliance and incisive songwriting, Prodigal only made three albums before disbanding).

So here's the first song on the first official album (there are rumours about a previous one under a different name).

Title: Invisible Man
Artist: Prodigal
Album: Prodigal
Year: 1982
Label: Heartland Records
Listen and download from the band's website here.

This song pretty much set the tone for band's career, lyrically. It's the cry of the common man, yearning to mean something to somebody but not succeeding in touching anybody. The protagonist describes himself basically as a wallflower, unassuming, just an ordinary everyday person, but intertwines this description with the lonely and painful reality that if you're not 'special,' nobody even notices you exist. And we need that -- we need that camaraderie, that companionship. Someone to come alongside and encourage us.

This song, I think, is a very accurate representation of what it's like to have depression (I speak from long experience). Those of you with friends or family who have depression -- this is what they are thinking and feeling, every single second of every single day.

With your stare you cut me
But you never see the scar...

Why should someone care for me
When I'm not really there...

At times I think my biggest crime
Was being born alive...

25 January 2016

Day Twenty-Five - What Is The Measure...?

Just finished the choreography for Steve Taylor's brilliant What Is The Measure Of Your Success?

This is a pretty emotional song. I found myself almost crying as I choreographed the ending. It's so haunting and hopeless. Taylor very much gets his point across, and it hurts a little more each time I hear it. Because the nature of creating choreography requires that I listen to the same section of the song repeatedly to get the vision and then to solidify the timing, I don't just hear the climax two or three times, it's more like two hundred times, each one on the heels of the other. And every time that final verse left me a little more tight in the chest.

I think my own choreography is part of that strong emotional response in myself. I'd long imagined this as a trio and I've had the blocking in my head for years. As usual, all I needed were the specific steps.

The trio is comprised of the first-person verse narrator -- a businessman, and two others who are equal parts bodyguards, henchmen, Greek chorus, and greedy young executives eyeing this businessman's power and wealth. The choreography is really simple, and that was intentional. It's loud, repetitive, and monotonous, which also happens to be my personal view of the business world. The two dancers move in perfect sync throughout, at once commenting and conniving, while the businessman displays his prowess at the front of the triangle -- until he realises that although he has gained the world, he is losing his soul. And then the sinister side of the other two comes out as they simply continue dancing, not noticing or caring about the hole that is left. It's just another businessman who lived and died in a dog-eat-dog world and no-one misses him. It's a lot like how Ebenezer Scrooge's end would have been if not for the fantastic events of that Christmas Eve.

And maybe what hurts is that the businessman in the middle, flaunting his skill and the heights to which he has risen, is me.

21 January 2016

Day Twenty - National Choreography Month

So after doing pretty much nothing for the entire second week, I went on a huge tear and choreographed three dances in two days. Two of them I covered in the previous post (Day 18), but then I started and finished another tap solo: Lecrae's Chase That. (This is what I meant when I said it was totally feasible for me to catch up on a three-days-per-piece timeline in the space of several days.)

Out of all the projects I had planned for this month, this one probably scared me the most (with the possible exception of Rattle Me, Shake Me), just because of the sheer volume of content in the song. Of course, being a rap song, it's packed with words, but that also means it's packed with rhythm and it covers a LOT of ground lyrically. Rap, as an art form, is adept at blending metaphors and imagery, using pivot words to take you from one mental image to another (this is also what I love about the songwriting of Steve Taylor), which kind of stretches your brain -- as it's supposed to. But it's also tricky for a choreographer like me who likes to match the mood of the movement to the mood of the lyrics. The music, being a canned beat (as is traditional with rap), isn't much help mood-wise either -- it's more or less the same loop for the entire song.

(Incidentally, this is why I'm not as into rap as I could be -- I love the style of lyric-writing, but it always kills me a little bit how uncreative the musical arrangements tend to be. Lecrae has been known to use violins -- Chase That is one such track, in fact -- and seriously that makes a huge difference, but as far as I know, he's the only one seriously experimenting in musical terms. That said, I realise that the main point in rap is the lyrical prowess and it would be difficult to keep a great arrangement from overshadowing the lyrics. It'll be really interesting to see how the genre develops and matures over the next twenty years or so as future rappers build on the work of artists like Lecrae.)

Anyway... the dance: Actually, I've done so much choreography in the past three days that I'm not too clear on which one this was. But out of all the musical climaxes I've tried to choreograph in various disciplines over the past four years or so, this was one of the ones I think I actually managed to capture in motion. I'm actually very proud of myself, particularly as tap isn't my first dance language. I'm noticing, too, that I'm getting better at this pacing thing -- not overusing things as much and thereby killing the climax when I use the overdone genius idea yet again (after putting it in every chorus).

This piece was intentionally a solo. Although my relationship with God is not great right now, this has always been my goal in my art -- to glorify God. And even though I've spent the last two days (in particular; the past year in general) mostly lashing out in fury that God isn't listening to me, there's a tiny part of me that still wants to give God the glory in my art. There's still a little piece that wants to chase His glory and not mine, and the chorus of this song is kind of an adopted mission statement (the story in the verses, obviously, bears little resemblance to my own story).

Day Eighteen - National Choreography Month

Written 18 January 2016, 3.13pm.

This month I've actually done a lot of dances that I've meant to do for a very long time and simply never committed to. I've wanted to do On The Other Side since before I owned tap shoes, and both Westminster Bridge and Love Divine were basically in complete sketch form and all I had to do was finalise the details. If I did nothing else this month, I cleared out a backlog of dances that really should have been polished off months ago.

One bit of glad news is that the month of straight tap has been doing exactly what I hoped it would -- focusing on always, only tap for almost three weeks now has allowed the ballet side of my brain to recharge and now some ideas for ballet dances are starting to creep back in. As tempting as it is to jump on them immediately and include them in Nachmo, I'm making a conscious effort to let then percolate. I'll pick them up again in February.

So far this month I've completed five dances -- Surrender; Love Divine; Rattle Me, Shake Me; On The Other Side; and today I polished off Westminster Bridge. That leaves another five still on the original list. I don't think I'll actually get all of them done this month, but even what I have right now is a huge accomplishment. I think I did like five dances total in 2015 (okay, it was actually more than that, but it feels like I've done more in three weeks now than I did all of last year).

Since I covered the first three a bit, here are some (sort of) brief reflections on the outstanding two dances.

On The Other Side: For years this was in my head as a dance for six. I only choreographed one rhythm line this month but I'm thinking I might expand it for two or six at a later date. This is less 'logical' and building blocks-y than I usually choreograph my tap stuff. I'm enough of a novice that I still tend to work in terms like 'two sets of paradiddles,' or 'one set of shuffle-ball change.' I'm not brave enough to take one of this and another of that, mess with the rhythm, and shove them in six counts instead of eight. Knowing that, and in an attempt to make my (tap) choreography less stale, I intentionally made this piece more 'off-kilter' than I usually do. I put in some stuff from a tap dictionary that I had never done before in an attempt to force myself to learn something new on my own (I have a tendency to learn nothing outside of what we work on in class). This is also what one might call lyrical tap -- I tried not to be a slave to the lyric rhythm, but I also took some of my shading cues from the rhythm of the lyrics.

Westminster Bridge: I actually don't really remember much of this one because it literally took me like an hour and a half to write it. I seem to remember it not sucking, so it must not have been too bad. It's a trio, and I think this was the really fast one (there was a really fast one in here somewhere).

12 January 2016

Dream Funeral

Originally written 2 January 2016, 11.36pm.

Lately I've been realising how much I think about death, particularly my own death.

I've mentioned on this blog before that I was suicidal for the better part of nine years. That time is past, but even after the suicidal thoughts were gone, I still thought about my own death a lot. Because I'd been suicidal for so long, it seemed normal to me. And because I'm an (aspiring) artist, it also stood to reason that I would ponder my own mortality more than the average person.

It never occurred to me that this might be strange until after Christmas. Over the past two weeks, like five people I know have gotten engaged (and I knew of at least eleven before that), and while everyone's talking about wedding planning and stuff, it began to occur to me that I'd never really even considered my own wedding or marriage. My (chronically single) sister has planned out her entire future wedding down to the amount of seconds it will take her to walk down the aisle, and I'd never thought to work out anything more specific than 'I'll be in white.' This might not seem strange to you until I tell you that I have my entire funeral planned out.

I'm not dying -- at least not of anything chronic (sometimes it feels like it though -- but my rant against the Canadian Health Care system is for another day). There's nothing in my life that is generally a harbinger of an early death. I mean, I could be taken out by an accident or something, but at the moment, I'm likely to live another seventy or eighty years (if the genes are any indication).

The other day I was thinking about this, wondering if maybe it was odd for me to have planned out my funeral while all my friends are planning weddings. Then I realised that in nearly every novel I've written, I make a cameo. And in almost every novel that features such a cameo, that character dies. Usually they die young, and usually they die suddenly -- one was murdered, one died of a virus, another indirectly committed suicide. But they're usually the 'me' character -- the one I identify with the most. And usually that character's death drives the book's plot. I've been dying vicariously through my characters. Why?

Again we turn to Kyrie. Only in Kyrie did I actually write a funeral, but that funeral was almost exactly the one I've planned out for myself. I featured some of the same songs I want played at mine, I featured the 'open mic eulogy' idea I want for my funeral, I featured a dance -- the same thing I want at my funeral. I focused on the heartbreak of the first-person narrator and the dead character's closest friend. It was pretty much my dream funeral.

The character who died was the 'me' character. Her goal was to touch people's hearts and encourage them as they trod the weary path of life -- as is mine. Her goal was to bring truth and beauty to a world that increasingly despises both -- as is mine. She had the courage to pursue her dreams of being an artist and when she died, although she touched the lives of many, and many missed her, there were 'villains' at her funeral: her parents (caricatures of everyone who's ever told me I was stupid and worthless purely because I'm not wired for a 9-to-5) and the director of the show that she was performing in when she died (who, as the narrator noted, mourned only the great talent he had lost, not the person herself).

In reflecting on that story, I recalled how much of my life has been spent in despair over this black hole in my heart and soul of feeling like I wasn't important to anybody. The question that has dogged my entire life since I was about nine years old was, If I died, would anybody miss me? That question fueled the lengthy suicidal episode and it still haunts me now. I asked my mother once and her response was, "Pfft! Of course I'd miss you," but it was so flippant and she seemed to think the question was ridiculous and annoying -- just like everything else about me. I'm not sure that if I died today, anybody would miss me for more than a week. And maybe that's why I took it so hard when my cousin died. After we got the phone call saying she was dead, my parents' reaction was, "well, God's in control," as if that settled it. They didn't ache, they didn't hurt, my mother didn't shed a single tear, though heaven knows my sister and I sobbed until we couldn't breathe at her funeral. They didn't mourn. They didn't care. They literally just shrugged and moved on. Less than a month after her death, my mother actually got upset at me: "Look, I don't know why you can't just move on already!"

Again -- less than a month after the third death close to me in as many months. The death of a child. And we're not counting the divorce-deaths in this tally.

And I'm starting to wonder if that's why every spark of life and joy and peace has shriveled up and died within me -- if that's how my parents react when a child close to them has died, how will they react if I were to die? Would they even care? Would they mourn me at all? Would they even notice a difference? And this is my parents. If I'm inconsequential in the eyes of my parents, how much less am I loved by those who aren't obligated to love me? Would I even be lucky enough to get a funeral? Or would people just send pithy cards to my parents with their regrets because they had work and call it good enough? Do I mean anything to anybody?

Some time ago, I wrote a post outlining my personal mission in life, and I've already alluded to it in this post. I want to touch people's lives. I want to encourage them and bring them a spark of hope or joy, the same way David Meece, Terry Scott Taylor/Daniel Amos, White Heart, and so on have brought to me. But if I can't even manage to touch the lives of my own family, never mind the random people I've happened to cross paths with in my life... then I've failed.

People always say on their deathbeds that the most important thing in life is the relationships you have and the people whose lives you've touched -- your spouse, your children, your parents, your family and friends. So many films, so many books, so many stories have that at their core. I'm one of the very few that have picked up on this long before actually dying, but I'm so inept at it. I want to know that I've helped somebody keep their chin up for even one more day. I want to know that something I created helped bring refreshment to a soul weary of this depressing world. But I don't know that I have. I don't know if I or the work of my brain and my hands have been important to anybody. I don't need to be famous. But I want to know that my life meant something to somebody.

10 January 2016

Day Ten - Dancing In Character

My latest project for National Choreography Month is turning out to be more of a big musical theatre number than a tap piece. This didn't surprise me too much, based on my post-secondary education thus far, but then I started to realise that the few dances I have managed to choreograph over the past few months have had distinctive characters in them. They're no longer twelve more-or-less-the-same beautiful dancers without a personality. Even though all of the dancers in a piece might be following the exact same kind of character (or stereotype), at least they have a character. It's not just bodies flailing around in a stylised fashion anymore. It's bodies moving with purpose, at least setting a theme if not telling a story.

A quick perusal of my recent choreographic output finds a tired old man, being escorted to heaven by a child and a dozen angels. There's a young woman grieving the death of someone close to her -- to the point where she's hallucinating. There are three game-show girls in the sassiest piece I will probably ever dream of choreographing. There's a legion of angels surrounding and comforting a terrified child in the dead of night. There's the wind running through the prairies -- grass, grain, and water dancing in praise of their creator. There are the aforementioned couples at a party and the dangerous-but-attractive man leading the naive girl on in Surrender.

And maybe this is where I'm getting stuck. For so long I've choreographed beautiful-but-plotless pieces (Speechless, Early In The Morning, God's Promises, more recently Dancing On Light...). And I still sort of expect that of myself. I love watching huge dances with lovely choreography and it usually doesn't bother me (in fact I often prefer it) if there's no main characters/soloists, so I try to emulate it. And in some pieces, I think I've done a decent job. But I haven't been allowing my choreography to move in the direction it wants to go lately. Apparently right now the creative brain wants to make characters, to create a mood at least (though not necessarily a specific story). Are rules and restrictions on particular pieces necessary? Absolutely, or nothing worthwhile would get done -- everything would have too much variety to make sense and not enough repetition to hold it together in one cohesive whole (this previous sentence is brought to you by my music theory profs -- I knew that music degree would help my choreography).

Part of why I've been reluctant to move into a realm with more character(s) is that I don't really know how. The first time I'd ever really been asked to take on a character of any kind in a dance was in my first year of college. I had been dancing for over ten years and the idea of dancing in character had never even crossed my mind until that teacher asked it of us. I mean, I knew about all the big ballets -- Swan Lake and Giselle and Nutcracker and Sleeping Beauty and so on -- but it had never occurred to me that they had to dance in character. I assumed the costumes, the sets, and the story written in the programme did all the work without really giving it any thought at all. It took me at least a full year to begin to wrap my head around it (and my head is still not completely around it -- how can you be in character non-verbally?). I always understood the concept of acting in character, but dancing...? I don't really even know where to begin. Dance is so codified... actors get to use the English (or whatever) language and street-level body language -- things that the average audience will understand, at least at a subconscious level. Dance, however, is so rare, so elite, so stylised, that the average person doesn't know how to watch it and as a result won't pick up on any of the subtleties that are supposed to be conveying character.

So how to choreograph a character clearly? Some of it is the responsibility of the performer, yes, but some of it is dependent on me, the choreographer. And to make it more difficult, I'm not even choreographing within my primary training -- I only started tap dancing when I was eighteen. I've still got a lot to learn about the dance form itself, never mind within the choreographic side of it.

Anyway, I'm getting off-topic. But I found the recent infusion of characters (or at least stereotypes) into my choreography interesting.

06 January 2016

Day Five - National Choreography Month

My proposed setlist from the end of December is still more or less the finalised setlist for this month (although I may have to add some Daniel Amos -- it's looking a little deficient). It's only day five and I've already finished two pieces... plus I took Sunday completely off from choreography. If I'm going with the rate of one dance every three days, I'm a full day ahead of schedule.

My approach so far has been to choreograph the songs which seem to beckon dances more readily. (Translated: I'm doing the easy ones first.)

First dance: Surrender.

The very first time I heard ELO's Surrender the entire premise, look, and feel of the dance popped to my mind, ready-made. The mood and story of the dance remained virtually unchanged from the moment I first heard the song. All that remained was to zoom in on the actual choreography that would convey the story -- and even then I had some of the pieces already.

It's a dance for ten (five couples), but the focus is on one particular couple and the other four mostly make up the setting. It borrows the general premise/theme from story-songs I know and love (Crumbächer's Jamie, Steve Taylor's Jenny, Veil Of Ashes' Angel Falls) -- a naive young girl gets flattered (or perhaps pressured?) into a sketchy romance. The featured couple meet at a dance, they 'fall in love' and start dancing together, but throughout the piece the guy starts getting more and more possessive and the subtext becomes darker and darker, meanwhile the girl keeps ignoring the alarm bells that surely must be ringing in her head. The whole piece builds to the end pose: they're suddenly alone, and she's in his clutches -- literally. It could be a jab at rape culture, it could be a jab at hookup culture -- I'm not exactly sure where I'm going with this one yet, but it'll be dark, in the vein of Daniel Amos' Doppelgänger (think Real Girls).

Second dance: Love Divine.

The is an adorable Phil Keaggy song with heavy Beatles influence. The first time I heard this, I knew it was a duet and I knew what the costumes would look like. Plus the dance's ending sequence pretty much came ready-made with the song (and it took a lot of self-discipline to not use that sequence for the whole song because it worked so well).

This song is a night-and-day difference from Surrender, thematically. Love Divine is a song of joy and love from Keaggy to God, singing about how this love saved him and thrills him. It's infectiously happy. It was a bit strange doing a dance ultimately about the widespread corruption of the concept of love and then doing this dance about the perfect, unadulterated (though certainly misunderstood), and free love of Jesus -- the way love was originally intended to be. I went from choreographing some of the darkest depths to the lightest and sweetest in two days.

What's next: I'm thinking David Meece's Rattle Me, Shake Me.